There is irony in this. A movie about one of the greatest storytellers ever suffers from an inability to tell a great story. Indeed, it is a rare Biblical film that manages to offend both Christians and non by its epic dullness. There are several cuts, the longest of which is over four hours, and all manage to portray Jesus as one of the most lifeless men to have walked the earth. Rather than a charismatic leader to thousands, he is an emotional blank with an affinity for proverbs.
The movie fancies itself a greatest hits album, borrowing well known verses and stories from all four Gospels. Unfortunately, these hits are flat, one-note tunes that do nothing to reflect the life of the man at the center of the film. What the movie really is is a Biblical checklist. Jesus is born; John the Baptist announces the Savior’s coming; Jesus begins his ministry and gathers followers; he is tempted by the devil; he performs miracles; he teaches love of Christ and mankind; people feel threatened by his influence; he dies; he rises.
This is the stuff of movies, yet director George Stevens sucks every ounce of drama out of it, preferring instead a muted and overly reverential tribute that dances around the soul of the Gospels and its characters. Max von Sydow’s ethereal Christ almost floats from one scene to another, foregoing any deeper understanding of Jesus as a fully human son of God, a faithful Jew, or a good shepherd. This Jesus dispenses each lesson with such studied cadence that, while the audience may be meant to ponder in awe, the more likely effect is that it is lulled to sleep. It is a good two hours before he shows some spark of life, when he admonishes the people for turning the temple into a marketplace. Under Stevens’s direction, it is truly a miracle that Jesus attracted any disciples.
The production design is equally static. The visuals have the same punch as a dusty painting of Jesus with his disciples that has been relegated to the back corner of a disused school chapel. Stevens wants to create a cinematic tapestry of the life of Christ, seeming to draw on the work of old masters, but his recreations lack the emotional nuance of his inspirations.
Much has also been made of the film’s expansive and entirely superfluous supporting cast. Movie stars, very big ones, pop in and out with frequency and rapidity. It is as if Hollywood wanted to stage a school production without leaving anyone out. Even John Wayne makes his infamous cameo as a centurion at Christ’s crucifixion. “Truly, this man was the son of Ghaaad.” Truly, you will thank God when this movie is over.
The trailer is better than the film.
Prod: George Stevens
Dir: George Stevens
Writer: James Lee Barrett, George Stevens
Cast: Max von Sydow, Dorothy McGuire, Charlton Heston, Claude Rains, Jose Ferrer, Telly Savalas, Martin Landau, David McCallum, Donald Pleasence, Michael Anderson, Jr., Roddy McDowall, Joanna Dunham, Joseph Schildkraut, Ed Wynn, Carroll Baker, Richard Conte, Angela Lansbury, Sal Mineo, Sidney Poitier, Shelley Winters, John Wayne
Time: 260 min
Country: United States